Sunday, July 29, 2007


Ritual Gardens

That’s my sister Zoe. She recently relocated to San Francisco and has been getting settled in her new home, and the other day she expressed two separate desires: to drink a really good cappuccino and to find a night-blooming jasmine. Those are seemingly unrelated wishes, but they got me to do something I have been meaning to do for a really long time: pay a visit to Ritual Coffee Roasters’ second location, a small espresso bar inside a plant nursery, Flora Grubb Gardens. And now… I think I’m in love.

Zoe and I arrived mid-morning and were treated to two of the most gorgeous, delicious cappuccinos I have witnessed in quite a while – including on recent visits to my local faves, Blue Bottle and Ritual Numero Uno – the ones we got yesterday were just particularly well-made. They were textbook – smooth, rich, and in full possession of that magical cappuccino thing of feeling both dense and light in your mouth at the same time. Ahh… they were splendid. And, better still, this Ritual is completely lacking in all the things that make the Valencia Street Ritual a pain in the ass. There’s no loud music. There are no long lines. And there’s no wifi, which drastically reduces the number of laptop-toting, table-hogging, grouchy hipsters in evidence. It was lovely. So Zoe and I sat at the bar – drinking spectacular coffee and shooting the breeze with Eileen, the owner, and the barista who’d made our drinks. Conversation topics ranged from the difficulty of getting novels published to why San Francisco is the kind of place where a barista can talk about butt sex all he wants but will get in serious trouble if he calls a woman “hon.” (I don’t know the answer to that, although I submit to the truth of the observation. Well, mostly. I don’t give a shit if a barista calls me hon, but I can see that there are women who might.) In fact, the place reminded me a lot of the truly outstanding DoubleShot Coffee – quiet, mellow, a nice counter for sitting at and drinking awesome coffee, a slow trickle of friendly faces coming in and out. Zoe and I have vowed to make it a weekly habit.

So then we left – Zoe having put in a special order for a night-blooming jasmine – and I noticed that all day I was in a really good mood. I had a little spring in my step, and a very ready laugh. And Zoe and I kept giggling over this or that funny thing that had been said (like the fact that the barista – I wish I could remember his name – disparagingly referred to men with beards as “beard-os.”) And then I started inwardly calculating when I would be able to make time to get back over there next. And after a certain number of hours of this behavior, it hit me that what’s going on is that I have A CRUSH on Plant Nursery Ritual. I mean, I walked around with that giddy, crushed out glow all day. I felt like a dork in that very unique way that I feel like a dork after some guy has caught my eye or charmed me with some witty turn of phrase and I spend the next day walking into walls because I'm distracted and mooning about it. I mean, this place is my idea of perfection in a coffee-going experience: excellent coffee, perfect technical execution of the drink, a great place to sit, and really fun, funny people to talk to.

And then it struck me – not for the first time – that I always use love metaphors to describe my feelings about coffee.

For instance, just a few weeks ago, I was talking with my friend Kaz about my feelings about Urth Caffe in Los Angeles. And I compared my indecision about what to order at Urth to my indecision about men – which Kaz and I have discussed at length over the years. Urth’s cappuccinos are wildly, wildly inconsistent. Their coffee itself is OK, but their preparation of espresso drinks is all over the map. I have had some sublime cappuccinos there, and some horrible ones. But for a long time, Urth was the only place in L.A. where I had any chance at all of getting a good cappuccino. So I continued to go there on a semi-regular basis, and some days I would gamble and get a cappuccino. But on other days, I would decide that I just wasn’t up to dealing with a crappy cappuccino, so I’d go for the “safe” option – a honey vanilla latte, which at least had a predictable measure of sugar to cover it up if things went wrong in the espresso department. And I noticed, over the years of periodically visiting Urth Caffe, that what I ordered was a pretty good indicator of how open and optimistic I was feeling in general. Would I go for perfection in the thing I was passionate about, knowing that I might get severe disappointment instead? Or would I turn to something that I could count on, knowing that it would never thrill me all the way down to my toes?

This is a question I have explored over and over again in my relationships with men too. Should I give my whole heart to the man who incites my passions, even if I risk spectacular failure and spectacular pain (which always seems to be a part of the story when passions are involved)? Or should I take comfort in the guy who’s “safe” because at least he doesn’t have the power to send me literally out of my mind the way the other guy does? Is the pain worth the rewards that come with those occasional, fleeting moments of perfection? On balance, I tend to go after the fleeting moments of perfection, but I definitely have had moments (even – I’m embarrassed to admit – whole years) when I’ve swayed the other direction. So… I was talking this over with Kaz, and I realized that it has gotten to the point where I not only talk about coffee using metaphors of romantic love, but I talk about romantic love using metaphors of coffee. I have literally begun to classify men this way: is he a honey vanilla latte or a cappuccino? Am I settling for something that won’t hurt me, or is this man LIGHTING ME UP? Of course my IDEAL – the thing that I am always running after, the seemingly unattainable – is to find the man who lights me up but also won’t stuff my heart through the meat grinder any old time the mood strikes him.

So I guess what I’m looking for – in men and in coffee – is a reliable source of perfection. (I say that in full awareness of how ridiculous it sounds. But hey. I’m just being honest here.)

But that leads me to my second insight of the day: I think I talk about coffee in terms of love and love in terms of coffee because both are utterly, totally unfathomable to me. I mean, these are the two areas of my life that do not follow the predictable, linear path to mastery that exists elsewhere in the rational world. On the contrary, the more experience I get with both coffee and men, the more I realize that I know NOTHING, that my knowledge and experience is just a tiny fraction of what there is to know. That I am a powerless infant. OK, I’m being a little dramatic here, but think about it! Who among us can claim to have mastered coffee OR love? Yes, over my years of cappuccino obsession, I have learned a thing or two about the skills that go into producing a really good one, and there are certain “rules” that are just basic - like, no nonfat milk, for instance. But once you get past the skills involved in preparation and just look at coffee itself? Coffee is nuts! It is a highly unpredictable agricultural product that is literally in a constant state of flux. Its beauty is profound. Its wonders are many. But it is constantly changing, and there are so many variables that come into play before the coffee finds its way into your cup – variables of geographical origin, processing, roasting and preparation – that it’s an absolute wonder to me that any coffee companies have ever achieved a measure of “consistency.” And coffee continues to change even as it sits there in your cup. It just never stops moving. It is exponentially more complex than I ever could have thought when I was a 16 year-old dumping sugar into a scalding hot mocha at Crepe ‘n’ Coffee on California Street.

And love is waaaaaay more complicated than I thought when I was a 14 year-old longing for someone to come stand outside MY bedroom window with a boombox playing Peter Gabriel. The more I learn, the more I realize that I know NOTHING. And this has been a hard thing for me to accept. I grew up in a very rational, pro-education household. My parents are scientists. I think one of my most deeply held beliefs is in my own ability to LEARN. I’ve always thought that if I’m not “good at” something, it’s because I have never cared to learn how to do it properly. So it has been very difficult for me to accept that romantic love is not something that fits into this model of learning. Sure, there are certain communication skills that go into being in a lasting and happy relationship, and those can be learned and practiced. But at the end of the day, the irrationality and inconsistency of human emotions – love first among them – means that the learning model doesn’t really apply to love. And it is a cruel joke to try to apply it to passionate, romantic love.

But here’s the thing: if coffee or men were more consistent, I’m sure I would not be paying any attention to them. It’s the unpredictability that keeps me showing up for more. And with coffee, at least, some of its inconsistency is what I prize most of all. I’m not talking about inconsistency of preparation, because badly prepared coffee is badly prepared coffee. Blech. I’m talking about the inherent inconsistency of coffee itself. When I drink a really good cup of coffee, the knowledge that I most likely won’t ever be able to replicate that experience again makes me appreciate it all the more. I have this bag of Guatemalan coffee from Terroir sitting on my kitchen counter right now; I’ve been drinking it for about four days. And it tastes a little different every day. There’s a chemical explanation for this – the coffee’s oxidizing and staling – but regardless of why, that evolution is interesting. And my awareness of that evolution is something that I absolutely appreciate. This is something I celebrate about coffee – the fact that I will have opportunities to try so many different things and to indulge my curiosity in so many different ways.

So why am I not able to appreciate the inconsistencies of love with that same acceptance and curiosity and appreciation of the sheer variety of it all? I have many theories about this, and the discussion of those theories has provided me with hours of occupation (if not always amusement). But ah… if only I knew…


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